Crossing cultures in SLO County

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneJuly 7, 2013 

Taha Ahmed spent a year in America discovering life was not exactly as depicted in Disney’s “High School Musical.” For him, and those he touched, it became a richer exchange of ideas, understanding, family and friendships. He was one of three students from Muslim countries spending a year in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District as part of YES (Youth Exchange and Study) through AFS (American Field Service Intercultural Programs).

“YES is a post-9/11 program which the U.S. State Department created to foster understanding between our countries,” area volunteer coordinator Leigh Livick said. “Students receive scholarships based on their English proficiency and desire to get involved in community service and learn about American lifestyle. Taha represented what the program was intended to do. He started out telling American groups about life in his country. Before he returned home to Karachi, Pakistan, he’d boldly say, ‘I was not born with a gun in my hand. I’m just like American teens who want careers and family.’ He’d commend the program for fostering world peace. Today, television news from Yemen and Egypt show us the youth are calling for change. Taha believed he would advocate for positive change once he was home. He was also quick to say America’s youth don’t realize the freedoms they have and should appreciate them more.”

Taha was hosted by Charles and Dana Wright, and their sons, Cameron and Gregg.

Livick is seeking two host families by mid-July for YES students. Russian students affiliated with the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) Program also need families. Placements are open in Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Templeton, Arroyo Grande and Nipomo.

“Families share their extra bedroom and hospitality for 10 months; however, it becomes a lifetime experience,” Livick said. “We have attended weddings years later for our five hosted daughters. They do what high school students would do plus attend some activities associated with the exchange program. Families are not left on their own. There is a liaison volunteer assigned to advise.”

Daniel Abbiati attended Morro Bay High School through CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) and lived with Leslie Rutebregt and children Holland, 15, and Jett, 11.

“Daniel fit right into our family and the experiences we shared together,” Rutebregt said. “My son got a brother. They enjoyed soccer together and everyone at the high school seemed to enjoy him. Daniel thought everything was ‘big’ in America and Americans liked to dress up and act goofy.”

CIEE coordinator Heather Young has students from Germany and Brazil who want to attend Morro Bay High School. Contact her at 805-975-3844. More information can be found at www.ciee.org.

Livick, who is an AFS, YES, and FLEX coordinator, can be reached at 805-466-7935. More information can be found at www.afsusa.org.

Judy Salamacha’s column is special to The Tribune. Reach her at judysalamacha@gmail.com or 801-1422.

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